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Reviewing the Book Review

Democratic Vistas

18 January 2009

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

As the title indicates, this week's issue has a theme, and it's a theme that the editors have stretched to include a number of policy and current-events books — books that probably oughtn't to be books, and that certainly don't merit coverage in the Book Review. (Where they do belong, of course, is the "Week In Review," which could use a bit of bookish rigor.) Reviewing Jeff Madrick's The Case for Big Government, David Kusnet nails the curious impermanence of these books, the contents of which have begun to stale before the books hit the shelves.

Researched and written before last summer, this fact-filled and well-reasoned book reads like an artifact from a time capsule.

We will not be spending any time, therefore, on what Mr Kusnet, Alan Brinkley, and Ray Bonner have to say about the following titles: A Long Time Coming: The Inspiring, Combative 2008 Campaign and the Historic Election of Barack Obama, by Evan Thomas; The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America, by Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed; Obamanomics: How Bottom-Up Economic Prosperity Will Replace Trickle-Down Economics, by John R Talbott; Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, by Robert Kuttner; The Case for Big Government, by Jeff Madrick; The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future, by Bruce Riedel; and The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, by Tariq Ali.


¶ Anthony Lewis gives a warm as well as rousing review to Eric J Sundquist's King's Dream, a literary analysis of Dr Martin Luther King's best-known speech — the most famous part of which, the final third, was extemporized.

Why did King abandon his written text that day at the Memorial? It may be, Sund­quist suggests, that despite shouts of approval he felt he had not really connected with the audience. His wife, Coretta Scott King, thought the words “flowed from some higher place.” In any event, the result was for the ages.

¶ Whose idea can it have been to assign Mark K Updegrove's Baptism By Fire: Eight Presidents Who Took Office in Times of Crisis to Jacob Heilbrunn, who prefers scourging books to reviewing them? He doesn't say anything explicitly unfavorable about this feel-good book about critical presidencies, but the tone of his review is fulsome.

As he conducts his amiable stroll through the past, Updegrove would have us believe that his gallery of greats should instill “hope and confidence in our future.” In this moment of crisis, “we are invested in the hope that Barack Obama is the best of us.” No doubt. But given the havoc wrought by George W. Bush, even plain competence should begin paying big dividends.

¶ Robert S Boynton's review of Gwen Ifill's The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama suggests that this study of four "breakthrough" black politicians has more lasting substance than the nonbooks cited below, but just barely.

It turns out that the Moses generation, what the Spelman College history professor William Jelani Cobb calls “the civil rights gerontocracy,” won’t give up power without a fight. Things get especially nasty when a newcomer refuses to “wait his turn” and challenges a black incumbent. The mistake breakthrough politicians make, Sharpton tells Ifill, is they think they can “take a shot at civil rights leadership and we ain’t gonna shoot back.”

An important factor in today's politics, certainly, but self-evidently transitory.

¶ David Greenberg reviews two books about FDR's presidency, Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, by Adam Cohen; and FDR v The Constitution: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy, by Burt Solomon. The first is a study of FDR's first hundred days that "meets the challenge" posed by other recent books on the same topic, while the second explores the opposition of Montana progressive Burton Wheeler to FDR's 1937 attempt to create a Supreme Court in his own image. The editors have unfortunately permitted Mr Greenberg too express far more interested in Mr Cohen's book than in Mr Solomon's. To what end?

¶ Gary Hart writes entertainingly of Peter W Rodman's Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy From Richard Nixon to George W Bush.

For those who find comfort in believing their nation’s role in the world is being guided by sober, thoughtful, wise and judicious men and women, this book is not to be recommended. Indeed, its look at behind-­the-scenes policy-making may give America’s enemies considerable comfort. And a skeptical reader may conclude that foreign policy is a field so messed up no one can manage it. But “Presidential Command” should be on the short list of readings for members of the Barack Obama administration — as much for its pointing out the mistakes to avoid as for illustrating the procedures to emulate.

¶ Although its title makes it sound like an occasional policy book, Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President, by Richard N Haass, Martin Indyk and others, appears from Ethan Bronner's review to be so deeply informed by historical considerations that the many contributors' viewpoints are unlikely to stale.

The debate is not over, but there is an emerging consensus for a third way. All the roads that used to lead to Jerusalem now lead to Tehran. Meet the Iranian challenge, it is said, and most everything else falls into place — Iraq (where Iran meddles with the Shia majority), Syria (with which it is closely allied), Lebanon (where it has vast influence over Hezbollah) and Palestine (where it equips and trains Hamas and Islamic Jihad). Through Tehran, every one of the major concerns in the region is connected to nearly every other one. Because of Tehran none can be solved in isolation. And if Iran goes nuclear, everything becomes hugely more problematic.

The best way to face up to Iran, according to the emerging consensus, is through a grand bargain that not only links ending Israeli settlement in the West Bank to halting nuclear proliferation, but also ties stopping planned American missile installations in Central Europe (which anger Moscow, needed as a partner for the deal) to stability and democracy in Lebanon. With the Iranian centrifuges continuing to spin, the Middle East cannot wait.

¶ Stephen Pollard praises Claire Berlinski for getting everything right in There Is No Alternative": Why Margaret Thatcher Matters — everything, that is, except how to write a book.

Part biography, part travelogue, part Economics 101 study guide, part history, it is an immensely frustrating book, the whole being less than the sum of its rather incompatible parts. Berlinski’s judgments are unfailingly correct. She understands the impact of Baroness Thatcher on Britain and the world. She appreciates the nuances of her relationship with President Ronald Reagan. She grasps the visceral feelings of admiration and contempt she aroused. She knows what mattered in the big picture. But so odd is the structure she has chosen to employ — more a series of extended notes than a book — that the useful and interesting points she makes are lost.

A review less preoccupied by Ms Berlinski's method would have made the point far more effectively.


¶ Art Winslow writes that "Irish history ... is the moil under the surface of [Sebastian] Barry's novels, and The Secret Scripture is no exception." The new book, we're told, overlays the "cat and mouse" game between a psychiatrist and a centenarian inmate, as the former tries to determine whether the latter ought to be hospitalized at all. Mr Winslow makes it sound very rich, if not particularly intelligible.

¶ Sylvia Brownrigg reviews another novel about unearthing the past, Hugo Hamilton's Disguise. Not until the end of the piece do we learn of her reservations, which are not inconsiderable.

The author of a much-praised memoir, “The Speckled People,” Hamilton seems to find it difficult to penetrate his characters’ interior lives in this novel. And in failing to explain fully Gregor’s cruel rejection of his adoptive parents (he refuses to see his father, even on his deathbed), Hamilton leaves a hollow at the heart of his story, diminishing the revelations that finally emerge.

Excessive storytelling contributes to this review's overall incoherence.

¶ Christopher de Bellaigue's favorable review of Barry Unsworth's new historical novel, Land of Marvels, set in what is now Iraq in the early summer of 1914, unfortunately fails to convey the flavor of the novel's prose — always a matter of first concern for discerning readers. Sketching the colorful characters is, in contrast, altogether unhelpful.

¶ In her review of Jayne Anne Phillips's new novel, Lark and Termite, Kathryn Harrison indulges the itch to storytell, but the novel's somewhat surreal aspects complicate the summary. Ms Harrison is very clear at the end, however:

Jayne Anne Phillips renders what is realistically impossible with such authority that the reader never questions its truth. This is the alchemy of great fiction: the fantastic dream that’s created in “Lark and Termite” is one the reader enters without ever looking back.

Regular readers of Ms Harrison's book reviews won't need to know more.

¶ Another historical novel, Janice Y K Lee's The Piano Teacher, gets an admiring review from Lisa Fugard that ought to have been longer. Set in Hong Kong, this story of a love triangle involving two Europeans and a Eurasian is written "in sleek, spare prose."

¶ Colin Fleming's review of A Manuscript of Ashes, by Antonio Muñoz Molina (translated by Edith Grossman), is so uninviting that readers may turn the page after the first paragraph.

Riddle, sham, requiem, detective story — Antonio Muñoz Molina’s novel “A Manuscript of Ashes” is one nasty revenge tale, bound to trip up readers as mercilessly as it flogs its characters. Simply, this is an exercise in psychological horror, a study of how far one man and his accomplice will go to crush the literary ideals of another — for sport, spite and inspiration.

It is hard to tell what Mr Fleming meant to achieve with this review.

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